Computing

How to Maximize Performance by Safely Overclocking Your Intel or AMD CPU

By overclocking your CPU, you can unlock extra power in your PC without spending a dime. Most processors have some room for overclocking, and if you know how to do it safely, you can enjoy higher frame rates in games and faster rendering in programs like Adobe Pro. Combining a CPU overclock with a GPU overclock can give your PC a significant performance boost. In this article, we’ll guide you through the basics of overclocking Intel and AMD CPUs. Remember, though, that CPU overclocking is just one piece of the puzzle for maximizing performance; you can also overclock your memory.

A Word of Caution

Intel Core i9-13900K held between fingertips
Image by Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

Before we dive into the overclocking process, it’s important to understand the potential risks involved. When you overclock a processor, two main things happen. First, the chip runs hotter and uses more power, which can reduce efficiency. This is especially problematic if you’re using a stock cooler, which tends to have poor cooling capability. You can still overclock with a stock cooler, but your overclocking potential will be limited compared to using a more advanced air or liquid cooling system.

The second risk is that overclocking pushes the CPU beyond its normal limits, which can shorten its lifespan due to higher temperatures and voltage. However, for most moderate to significant overclocks, this won’t have any significant impact on your CPU’s longevity.

It’s also crucial to consider the quality of your motherboard. Overclocking increases power consumption, so you need to ensure that your motherboard has sufficient voltage regulator modules (VRMs) to handle the extra load. Poor-quality VRMs or insufficient VRM quantity can result in dangerously high temperatures. To monitor your motherboard’s temperature during stress tests, we recommend using an application like HWMONITOR. Any component reaching 100 degrees Celsius or higher can be detrimental to your PC’s health.

For laptop CPUs, overclocking is generally not recommended. Most laptops don’t allow overclocking, and even if they do, they often lack the thermal headroom required for a stable overclock. If you attempt to overclock a laptop CPU, you might need to resort to more advanced techniques like applying liquid metal to the CPU cooler and using third-party software.

Finally, keep in mind that overclocking your CPU can void its warranty. Both AMD and Intel typically do not cover damages caused by overclocking, unless you excessively increase the voltage. Some motherboard manufacturers may or may not cover overclocking. If you’re concerned about warranty coverage, we recommend checking the terms and conditions before attempting any overclocking.

Identify Your CPU

Intel XTU Main
Image by Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

Before you start overclocking your CPU, you need to determine two things. First, check whether your CPU can be overclocked. This information is usually available on the manufacturer’s website (AMD or Intel). As a general rule, nearly all AMD CPUs are overclockable, while only Intel CPUs ending in “K” or “X” support overclocking.

Next, ensure that you have a motherboard that supports overclocking. The chipset on the motherboard determines this. For AMD motherboards since 2017, those with the B or X prefix officially support overclocking. For Intel motherboards, only those with the Z prefix offer official overclocking support. While it’s not impossible to overclock with a motherboard that doesn’t officially support it, your options will be more limited.

It’s natural to wonder what frequencies your CPU can reach. While some CPUs overclock better than others, most CPUs fall within a narrow range. Here’s a quick overview of how popular generations of CPUs typically overclock at normal voltages. Please note that these estimates are based on reviews and historical statistics. If your CPU model isn’t listed, you’ll need to conduct your own research and consult reviews, forums, and other resources.

Safe Temperatures and Voltages

What’s considered safe for your CPU depends on the model and your level of risk tolerance. In the past, CPUs were considered hot when they reached 80 to 85 degrees Celsius. However, modern CPUs like the Core i9-13900K and Ryzen 9 7950X can reach 95 degrees Celsius out of the box. For modern CPUs, 95 degrees Celsius is the new threshold. For older CPUs that normally run closer to 85 degrees Celsius at stock, it’s uncertain whether 95 degrees Celsius is also safe. In this guide, we recommend keeping temperatures below 95 degrees Celsius, with temperatures below 85 degrees Celsius being ideal.

To optimize your PC’s thermal performance, we recommend cleaning out dust from your PC using compressed air and a cloth. Avoid using a vacuum cleaner, as it can generate static electricity and is not very effective at cleaning filters, fans, and coolers. You may also consider applying fresh thermal paste or upgrading to a new cooler for your CPU.

The voltage required for overclocking depends on your CPU model and its quality. Most CPUs from the same generation have a safe voltage limit regardless of their quality. Refer to the table above for estimates on voltage requirements for achieving overclocks within specific frequency ranges. However, simply staying within those voltage ranges doesn’t guarantee safety. Raising voltage on any CPU can have unforeseen long-term consequences.

It’s worth noting that some CPUs have higher quality and can reach higher clock speeds at lower voltages. This is why we provide a range of frequencies rather than a single number. Increasing voltage will generally allow a processor to reach higher frequencies, but excessive voltage can damage or kill a CPU. Having a higher-quality CPU makes a significant difference.

You might wonder why temperatures rise significantly after overclocking. Voltage directly impacts power consumption, and higher power consumption generates more heat. This is why higher-end CPUs with more power draw require larger coolers. When you overclock, both the voltage and clock speed increase, leading to a substantial rise in power consumption.

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Intel CPU: Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU)

Intel XTU Stress Test
Image by Jacob Roach / Digital Trends

For beginners, we recommend starting with Intel’s Windows-based Extreme Tuning Utility (XTU). XTU is an official software suite designed specifically for overclocking Intel CPUs. It offers plenty of tweakable settings, useful statistical information, and can even serve as a system information utility.

Although XTU may seem overwhelming at first due to its many options, you only need to focus on a few key settings. Most of the additional options can be safely ignored.

Step 1: Baseline Temperatures and Performance

The first time you run XTU, establish a baseline by running the Stress Test located in the left-hand menu. Let the test run for at least an hour. You can monitor the test or do other tasks while it runs. Towards the end of the hour, check the system information in the window’s base. Take note of the Package Temperature. If your CPU exceeds 85 degrees Celsius, overclocking may not be viable without better cooling.

If your temperature is well below 85 degrees Celsius, you have some thermal headroom for a higher frequency overclock.

Step 2: Multiplier Tuning

While you can overclock using the Basic tab, understanding the different components of an overclock will help achieve stability. Select the Advanced Tuning tab in the left-hand menu and navigate to the Multipliers section.

Multipliers (or CPU ratios) represent the CPU’s speed. They are a multiplication of the base clock (BCLK), which is typically 100MHz. For example, a x32 multiplier would result in a turbo frequency of 3.2GHz. Increase the multiplier by one (e.g., x33) across all cores. Although you can adjust frequencies individually on different cores, starting with an all-core overclock simplifies the process.

Next, test the stability of your overclock by selecting the Stress Test in the left-hand menu and rerun the test for 10 minutes. If it completes without issues, increase the multiplier by one more step and repeat. Once the test fails or your computer crashes, step back to the previous stable multiplier setting.

Once you’ve achieved a stable overclock that you’re satisfied with, conduct more extended stress tests and play games for several hours to ensure stability. If the overclock remains stable, congratulations on successfully overclocking your CPU.

Step 3: Raising the Core Voltage

While you can achieve higher overclocks by increasing the voltage, adjusting CPU voltage requires extra caution. Incorrect voltage settings can damage your CPU. For most Intel CPUs released within the last five years, it’s generally safe to stay below 1.3 volts. For older CPUs, like 6th generation and older, voltages up to 1.4 volts may be acceptable. However, voltages above 1.5 volts are almost always dangerous for modern CPUs.

To increase voltage in XTU, go to the Advanced Tuning tab in the left-hand menu and adjust the Core Voltage using the Core Voltage slider or Core Voltage Offset. Stick to the Core Voltage slider for simplicity, or use the Core Voltage Offset if you want the CPU to manage voltage automatically. Monitor your CPU’s voltage during stress tests if you use the Core Voltage Offset.

Be careful when adjusting CPU voltage. Pushing the CPU too hard can crash or restart your system. To determine the safe voltage range for your specific CPU, we highly recommend researching overclocking results achieved by other users with the same model. Reading reviews and forum posts, especially on platforms like r/overclocking, will give you an idea of the limits.

Start by increasing the core voltage by about .025 volts. For example, if your starting voltage is 1.250 volts, move to 1.275 volts. Apply the changes. If the system remains stable, rerun the stress test to ensure safe temperatures.

Step 4: Rinse and Repeat

Now that you have the tools and knowledge to find a stable overclock, take it step by step. Increase the multiplier by one each time and increase the voltage by .025 volts (or 25 millivolts) with each attempt to achieve stability. Keep an eye on temperatures, ideally staying below 95 degrees Celsius, which is the thermal throttling threshold for most CPUs. Lower temperatures are even better, though hotter temperatures may be acceptable depending on your tolerance for risk.

If your system crashes or restarts, it’s a sign that you’ve pushed the frequency too far. Make adjustments accordingly. The main goal should be to find a safe and stable frequency for your CPU. Achieving a high frequency that causes crashes or instability will not provide any real benefit.

Once you’ve reached the thermal or voltage limits, run a stress test for an hour. If your PC passes without issues, you’ve likely achieved the best overclock your CPU can handle. If your PC crashes during the stress test, dial back the clock speed and try again. Once you’ve achieved a stable overclock, save a profile in XTU to easily reapply it later or attempt further overclocking.

‘Overclocking’ a Locked CPU

If you have a locked Intel CPU, you have limited overclocking capabilities. However, there are options in XTU that can increase your processor’s frequency, such as raising the power limit and increasing boost times. Tweak these settings to allow your CPU to boost higher and for longer periods. Keep in mind that the impact of these changes may vary.

Under the Core section of XTU, you’ll typically find sliders labeled Turbo Boost Power Max and Turbo Boost Short Power Max. Increase these values to “Unlimited.” This adjustment raises the maximum power consumption but doesn’t involve raising the CPU voltage. You’ll also find a slider labeled Turbo Boost Power Time Window. Set it as high as possible. These changes ensure that your CPU attempts to reach higher frequencies during boosting and sustains them for longer.

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This summary provides an overview of overclocking locked CPUs, but keep in mind that the specific options and capabilities may vary depending on your hardware.

AMD CPUs: Ryzen Master

The home screen of an MSI motherboard's BIOS
Image by MSI

For AMD Ryzen desktop CPUs, we recommend using Ryzen Master for overclocking. Ryzen Master offers a straightforward and user-friendly interface, making it easy to achieve a quick and safe overclock. However, please note that Ryzen Master is only compatible with desktop CPUs, and mobile CPUs are not supported.

Older AMD processors from the FX and A series use AMD Overdrive instead of Ryzen Master. AMD Overdrive is similar in concept but not identical, so be sure to double-check and follow the appropriate instructions.

Step 1: Stress Test

Before starting the overclocking process, ensure that your CPU doesn’t exceed safe temperatures. While Ryzen Master has a built-in stress test, its duration is relatively short, making it less ideal for evaluating stability. We recommend using third-party applications like AIDA64, Prime95, or Cinebench R23 for stress testing.

In this guide, we’ll use AIDA64. Open AIDA64, select Tools from the top menu, then choose Stability Test. Press Start to begin the test and let it run for approximately an hour. Ensure that your CPU temperatures stay below 80 degrees Celsius. If temperatures exceed 80 degrees Celsius, you’ll need to improve your cooling before proceeding with overclocking.

Step 2: Frequency Tuning

For basic overclocking using Ryzen Master, start with the Basic View. If your software looks like the screenshot above, you’re all set. Otherwise, select Basic View from the bottom-left corner of the expanded interface.

Switch the Control Mode from Default to Manual. This enables manual adjustment of clock speed and voltages, which are essential for overclocking. When you switch to Manual mode, the CPU Clock Speed and CPU Voltage sliders become accessible. This time, you’ll be adjusting the total clock speed rather than the multiplier.

Increase the CPU Clock Speed by 50MHz and select Apply & Test. Ryzen Master will apply the new clock speed and run a stability test. We recommend also running the stress test in AIDA64 to ensure stability.

Repeat this process, gradually increasing the clock speed until you reach your desired frequency or experience a crash. Once you encounter a crash, dial back the clock speed to the last stable setting and use your computer for several hours (or even a day or two). If the system remains stable, congratulations, you’ve found your base overclock. You can fine-tune it further by adjusting the voltage.

Step 3: Raising the Core Voltage

Increasing the CPU’s voltage can enhance stability and allow for higher overclocks. However, higher voltage also results in increased power consumption and temperatures. Be cautious when adjusting voltage and make small adjustments at a time.

For Ryzen 1000 and 2000 CPUs, voltages at or below 1.4 volts are generally safe. For Ryzen 3000 and newer CPUs, it’s advisable to stay at or below 1.3 volts. If you’re willing to take risks, you can experiment with higher voltages, but it’s crucial to monitor your CPU’s temperature during stress tests and ensure it stays within acceptable limits.

In Ryzen Master, adjust the CPU voltage using either the CPU core voltage slider or CPU voltage offset. We recommend using the CPU core voltage slider for simplicity. If you use the CPU voltage offset, monitor your CPU’s voltage during stress tests to ensure safety.

Take note of the impact of Load-Line Calibration (LLC) settings in the BIOS. Higher levels of LLC mitigate voltage droop, providing more stability and overclocking headroom. However, increasing LLC can also result in overshooting voltage, which can be dangerous. It’s generally recommended to keep LLC at medium levels, usually labeled as LLC 3.

Start by applying a small voltage increase, such as .025 volts, and select Apply & Test. If no stability issues arise, rerun the stress test to ensure safe temperatures.

Step 4: Rinse and Repeat

Continuously increase the frequency until you encounter stability issues or hit safety limits, such as maximum voltage or 95 degrees Celsius during stress tests. You may also face power limitation challenges that depend on your motherboard and CPU power consumption.

After reaching these limits, save your overclocking profile in Ryzen Master and run an hourlong stress test. If your PC passes the test, congratulations, you’ve achieved a successful overclock. If your PC crashes during the stress test, reduce the clock speed slightly until stability is restored.

When Ryzen Master loads with Windows, you may be prompted for admin approval to apply the overclock. If the prompt doesn’t appear, you can manually apply the overclock within the Ryzen Master application.

Auto OC and PBO

Ryzen Master offers two additional features that can boost performance: Auto OC and Precision Boost Overdrive (PBO). These features increase the CPU’s clock speed beyond stock settings. While Auto OC is available in Basic View, PBO can be found in Advanced View.

Auto OC and PBO achieve higher clock speeds and improved performance, but they may also increase power consumption and temperatures. Auto OC and PBO have similar effects, so enabling either one should suffice. Keep in mind that Ryzen CPUs rated for higher frequencies may experience reduced single-threaded performance with all-core overclocking.

overclocking with the BIOS

ClockTuner running on a Ryzen 3960X
Image by MSI

Before software tools like XTU and Ryzen Master were available, overclocking was done through the PC’s BIOS. While the BIOS method may be less convenient and more time-consuming, it offers greater customization options and potentially higher clock speeds.

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Step 1: Identify Your Motherboard

Modern motherboards have different ways to access the BIOS. Generally, you need to press a specific key before your PC boots into Windows, such as Delete, F11, or F12. If you’re unsure, consult your motherboard’s manual or search for guides specific to your motherboard model. Some motherboards have a simpler UI enabled by default, so you might need to press a key to access the full UI.

To access the BIOS on Windows, search for “Advanced startup” and select “Restart now” in the Windows search results. When your PC restarts, choose Troubleshoot, Advanced options, and finally UEFI Firmware Settings. This method bypasses the need to catch the BIOS key during boot.

Next, navigate to the overclocking section of the BIOS. The exact location and options vary depending on your motherboard. Consult your motherboard’s manual or search for guides specific to your motherboard model if you need assistance.

Step 2: Stress Test

Before tweaking any settings, stress test your PC to ensure stable temperatures and performance. Use third-party applications like AIDA64, Prime95, or Cinebench R23 for stress testing. Allow the stress test to run for at least 10 minutes.

If your PC can handle the stress test without exceeding 80 degrees Celsius, you’re ready to start overclocking. If temperatures surpass 80 degrees Celsius, improve your cooling solution before proceeding.

Step 3: Frequency Tuning

In the BIOS, gradually increase the CPU frequency or multiplier to achieve higher clock speeds. Adjustments vary depending on your motherboard. For Intel CPUs and some AMD CPUs, you’ll increase the multiplier, which multiplies against the base clock (BCLK). A multiplier of 30, for example, results in a 3GHz frequency. For most AMD CPUs, you’ll directly input the frequency in a field labeled CPU frequency.

If you don’t see options to adjust the frequency or core voltage, find an option that enables manual tweaking, or consult your motherboard’s manual for guidance.

Step 4: Raising the Core Voltage

Adjusting the core voltage can improve stability and enable higher overclocks. Find the CPU core voltage or CPU voltage field in the BIOS. You may have options to input a single value or an offset. We recommend using the single value method for simplicity and greater overclocking potential. If you use an offset, be sure to monitor your CPU’s voltage during stress tests.

Take note of the Load-Line Calibration (LLC) option, which affects voltage droop. Higher LLC levels mitigate voltage droop but can lead to overshooting voltage and risking CPU damage. We recommend keeping LLC at medium levels (often labeled LLC 3) for a balance between stability and safety.

Start with the default voltage and increase it in small increments, such as .025 volts. For example, if your default voltage is 1.2 volts, increase it to 1.225 volts. Save changes, exit the BIOS, and rerun the stress test. Monitor temperatures to ensure they remain within a safe range.

Step 5: Rinse and Repeat

Continue increasing the frequency until your PC crashes or you reach the maximum voltage, temperature, or power limit you’re comfortable with. Run an hourlong stress test to verify stability. If your PC passes, save a profile of your settings in the BIOS and reboot.

If your system crashes during stress tests, lower the clock speed until stability is restored.

BCLK Overclocking

Increasing the base clock (BCLK) is an alternative method to overclocking locked CPUs. Raising the BCLK increases the frequency across the entire motherboard, including other components. However, this method can introduce stability issues and potentially damage your motherboard. It’s generally not recommended, especially for locked chipsets.

BCLK overclocking limitations and motherboard support vary. If your motherboard doesn’t support adjusting the BCLK, focus on other settings like Multi-Core Enhancement and other options related to raising power limits and extending boost times.

Automatic Overclocking for Ryzen with ClockTuner

ClockTuner
Image by 1usmus

ClockTuner, developed by 1usmus, offers an automatic overclocking solution specifically for select Ryzen CPUs. This tool analyzes CPU quality and applies the most optimal clock speed and voltage settings. ClockTuner is designed for enthusiasts with high-quality chips that can achieve higher overclocks than traditional methods.

ClockTuner is a complex software, and 1usmus provides a separate guide for using it. ClockTuner tests your CPU, evaluates its quality, and automatically applies the recommended clock speeds and voltages. It takes the Auto OC concept to the next level by thoroughly testing each frequency and voltage combination.

It’s important to note that ClockTuner has limited support. As of the time of writing, ClockTuner is not updated for newer CPUs released after Ryzen 5000’s initial launch. The tool only supports the first four Ryzen 5000 CPUs and hasn’t been updated since May 2021.

However, if you have a supported CPU and it’s of good quality, ClockTuner can provide the most optimal balance of single-threaded and multi-threaded performance, along with better efficiency during lighter workloads.

Conclusion

Overclocking your CPU can be a rewarding way to squeeze extra performance out of your PC. By following the steps outlined in this guide and ensuring that you stay within safe limits, you can safely overclock your Intel or AMD CPU. Remember to monitor temperatures, adjust voltages cautiously, and stress test your PC for stability. Enjoy the increased performance and the benefits of your overclocked CPU!

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